Posts Tagged ‘training’

Instrument Changes: Approaches without IAFs and Vectors to Fixes

Monday, March 24th, 2014

 

00285R11

My article about a “new” third way to start an approach, by flying to the intermediate fix (IF), drew many comments, including one asking “wouldn’t it be best to establish yourself earlier on the approach earli
er than the IF.” Another flight instructor explained that, in the case of the GPS 31 approach into Palo Alto, the IAF locations are inconvenient (unless you’re flying in from Japan!) and are over mountainous terrain, which is why most pilots start this approach at the IF. Now, even the FAA doesn’t consider an IAF a necessity and many approaches are charted without any IAFs!

First, my thanks to longtime friend Hilton Goldstein, for pointing out a number of approaches that lack an IAF. Hilton is the brains behind WingX, an integrated aviation app for the iPhone and iPad that provides just about every function a pilot might need for planning and flying a flight. He reviews every new instrument procedure chart before it goes into WingX, which is how he spots interesting procedures.

But first let’s go to the source, the Air Traffic Control Handbook, Order 7110.65U. Last year, section 4-8-1 Approach Clearance, was updated and now says in part:

“Standard instrument approach procedures (SIAP) must begin at an initial approach fix (IAF) or an intermediate fix (IF) if there is not an IAF.” [emphasis added].

Newark Liberty International (KEWR) is a great example. By my count, they have a total of 14 approaches that lack an IAF; all begin at an IF. An example is the RNAV (GPS) RWY 11 approach, which starts at the IF, MUFIE. Note the chart is marked RADAR REQUIRED, as are all charts for procedures starting at an IF.

Looking for the RADAR note is one possible clue that an approach might lack an IAF and start at an IF. At KEWR, 14 approaches have that restriction and all start at an IF. Well technically, one of them doesn’t have an IF, but it was probably an oversight.

If you look at the VOR RWY 11 at KEWR, you’ll note it starts at PINEZ. The next fix, LOCKI, can be identified as the Final Approach Fix (FAF) since it shows a Maltese cross at LOCKI in the profile view. An intermediate segment begins at an IF and terminates at an FAF, in this case LOCKI. Thus PINEZ should be an IF, though it’s unmarked. So technically, the FAA cannot clear an aircraft to start this approach at PINEZ, since per JO 7110.65U, an approach must begin at “an intermediate fix (IF) if there is not an IAF.” My guess is “IF” will be added to PINEZ in a future chart revision.

Why don’t these approaches have an IAF? Probably because it simplifies things in what’s already some of the most congested airspace in the United States. Besides, per the FAA Instrument Procedures Handbook, “The purpose of the initial approach segment is to provide a method for aligning the aircraft with the intermediate or final approach segment.”

In most cases, an aircraft can start at an IAF from any direction. Depending upon the angle of arrival at an IAF, an aircraft may need a lot of space and time to get turned around and straightened out, hence the need for the initial segment.

But airliners flying into a major metropolitan airport like Newark are usually vectored in an orderly line more than 100 miles out from the start of an approach. Thus they’re well lined up and hairpin turns aren’t required as they start an approach. In that kind of structured environment, there’s no need for an initial segment to get lined up and hence no reason not to start at an IF. So what do you think? Will the IAF slowly fade away in the future, except in non-radar environments?

Vectors to Fixes Outside the FAF
Another change last year in section 4-8-1 of 7110.65U says that aircraft can now be vectored to start an approach at any fix, as long as it’s 3 NM or more outside of the FAF. Typically in the past, vectors have been to join the final approach course along a leg, not to a particular fix (except for the IAF and IF). Here’s the exact text:

“Where adequate radar coverage exists, radar facilities may vector aircraft to the final approach course, or clear an aircraft to any fix 3 NM or more prior to the FAF along the final approach course in accordance with Paragraph 5-9-1, Vectors to Final Approach Course, and Paragraph 5-9-2, Final Approach Course Interception.”

Looking at Paragraph 5-9-2, one finds that controllers must assign a heading that cannot exceed 30° from the final approach course. Thus we end up with the following maximum intercept angles for joining the final approach course at a fix:

  • 30° when at fixes outside the FAF, except for:
  • 90 ° for intercepts at the IF, and
  • any angle for intercepts at an IAF.

I’d venture to say that the majority of approaches don’t have any other fixes outside the FAF, other than the IF and IAF, which were covered by prior rules. Yes, you’ll find lots of feeder fixes outside the IAF, but you can typically join these at any angle. So while this rule change may give pilots and controllers another option on some approaches, it’s not clear to me that it offers much new benefit. If you’re aware of an approach where having this option offers a significant operational advantage, please share it with readers in the comments.

One thing we know for sure that’s constant is change. And that the rate of change is accelerating. Which means pilots and controllers alike will need to spend even more time learning about future changes and how they affect they way we fly. Perhaps that’s why a pilot certificate is often called a license to learn.

How to Request to Start an Approach at the Intermediate Fix (IF)

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014
Requesting to be cleared "Direct to" the IF can result in a hairpin turn that's not permitted by the AIM.

Requesting to be cleared “Direct to” the IF can result in a hairpin turn that’s not permitted by the AIM.

Instrument pilots know that there are two ways to start an instrument approach: they can get vectors or fly direct to an initial approach fix (IAF). Last month, I wrote about the “new” third way to start an approach, by flying to the intermediate fix (IF). This month I planned to write about the challenges in requesting to start an approach at an IF. Coincidentally, the day this article was due, the problem I planned to describe occurred…again.

I added quotes to “new” because, while this third method has been described in section 5-4-7(i) of the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) since 2006, I expect it will take many years before this information fully permeates the pilot and controller populations. Why so long? Partly because old habits in aviation die slowly and because standard IFR phraseology is confusing when applied to starting at an IF.

The confusion is not unlike the language issues that led to “Position and hold” being changed to “Line up and wait,” a change I enthusiastically supported. Countless times I’ve been in the cockpit with a pilot who confused “Position and hold” with “Hold short,” presumably because they both contained the word “hold.” In this case, potential confusion exists with the words “vectors” and “direct to,” when used to request to start an approach at an IF.

In September 2012, I exchanged several emails about this problem with a friend who is a supervisor at the Northern California TRACON. In my first email, I wrote in part,

“In my books, I tell pilots that there are three ways to fly an instrument approach:
1. vectors,
2. own navigation (or pilot navigation) to an IAF, and
3. a third method, which appeared in the Aeronautical Information Manual beginning in 2006 that allows pilots to start at an IF under certain circumstances (see extract from my G1000 Book below).

“We have short, well understood names that pilots use to ask controllers for the first two methods. But I’m not aware of a convenient name for pilots to use when requesting this third method. Are there quick, easy names that controllers use to describe this third method? Or should we be inventing a new name for it and promoting it among the aviation community?”

Why the need for a “quick, easy name?” Because for years, I’d sometimes had to clarify my request to start at an IF by adding that I’d like “to be vectored to a point from which you can clear me direct to DOCAL with a turn of less than 90 degrees.” That’s a mouthful and an inefficient use of radio time at a busy TRACON.

The reply from my supervisor friend was that the consensus at the facility was that a pilot should name the approach and ask to start at the name of the IF. In the case of the GPS 31 approach at Palo Alto, a pilot would ask to “start the approach at DOCAL,” Alternatively, you might consider requesting “to start the approach at the Intermediate Fix,” which should trigger the controller to remember the 90 degree turn rule.

Potential Confusion in Phraseology
Using the words “vectors” or “direct to,” works great when a pilot is requesting to start an approach with vectors or at an IAF. But they can be confusing when used to start an approach at an IF.

“Vectors” means you’ll be guided to join an approach at least several miles outside of the final approach fix (FAF). Requesting “vectors to DOCAL” could make sense, except that the JO 7110.65U tells controllers that when giving vectors, they are to turn pilots to within 30 degrees of the final approach course, not the 90 degrees permitted at an IF. So you don’t really want “vectors” to the IF.

If instead of asking to “start the approach at DOCAL” a pilot asks to be cleared “Direct to DOCAL,” controllers will sometimes take that literally and clear a pilot from their present position to the IF. But this can result in nearly a 180 degree turn at the IF, which isn’t permitted under 5-4-7. And that’s exactly what happened to me today. I had just crossed over Moffett Field and was essentially on a downwind leg to the approach. The controller asked whether we wanted vectors or to start the approach at DOCAL. I chose the latter and was immediately cleared “Direct to DOCAL.”

I’m not sure why the controller did that, though I’m guessing he was familiar with the 90 degree rule in 5-4-7. Shortly afterwards, I said “we’d like to continue on this heading until we can make a turn of less than 90 degrees at DOCAL,” to which he said “That will be fine.”

Why so casual? We weren’t IFR, but were doing a VFR practice approach, where separation standards are relaxed. Under those circumstances, I’ve seen controllers not require a turn of less than 90 degrees at an IF, a practice that may confuse pilots and controllers alike about the proper way to start an approach at an IF.

Get on the Same Page as the Controller
Regardless of how you request an approach, or how you are cleared to an approach, it’s important to be on the same page as the controller. If you have any doubt as to whether the controller and you have the same game plan in mind, request clarification. In the meantime, don’t hesitate to ask to “start the approach at the IF” if that’s how you would like to fly the approach.

Three Ways to Start an Instrument Approach: Vectors, IAF and Intermediate Fix (IF)

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

KPAO GPS 31

A friend lamented on Facebook that the NDB procedure at the airport where he learned to fly is no longer available. He added  “For some reason it makes me a little sad.” I’m guessing his sadness had more to do with his feelings about learning to fly at that airport, than it did about flying an NDB approach. Or perhaps he was reminiscing about the pride he felt in mastering the NDB approach.

I used to enjoy the intellectual challenge of flying an NDB approach and the even greater challenge of teaching others to master it. But no more. There are no NDB approaches left in the S.F. Bay area where I teach and I say “good riddance.”

The approaches were inaccurate and difficult to fly and former Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown was killed when U.S. Air Force pilots failed to correctly fly a rare “dual NDB” approach. I’m much prefer to see pilots expend their intellectual horsepower on mastering flying IFR approaches with modern GPS receivers, which can be more work than learning NDB approaches, and staying up to date on rule changes.

One rule change that frequently causes confusion among pilots and controllers alike relates to the third way to fly an instrument approach. All instrument pilots know you can fly an approach with vectors or use pilot navigation to start at an IAF (initial approach fix). However there’s a third way that’s been around since 2006, but word about it has been slow to get out to pilots and even to a few controllers.

Pilots can now start an instrument approach, with some restrictions, by flying directly to the IF (intermediate fix). Just to remind those who may have forgotten, the initial segment of a typical instrument approach procedure starts at an IAF and ends at the IF. So typically the IF is the next fix after the IAF as you fly toward the airport.

You might be wondering, “What’s the big deal, why would I want to skip the IAF.” For many approaches it won’t matter, especially if the IAF is along your direction of travel toward the airport. But for some approaches it can save a few clicks on the Hobbs meter. For example, at my home airport of Palo Alto, Calif., the GPS 31 approach has two IAFs, but both are in the boonies and most pilots start the approach at DOCAL, the IF.

You’ll find the details about starting an approach at an IF in section 5-4-7(i) of the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), where it first appeared in 2006 (yes eight years ago!). However, you won’t read about it in the FAA’s Instrument Flying Handbook or even in the FAA Instrument Procedures Handbook, both of which are excellent publications.

The rule applies to all approach types, not just RNAV (GPS) approaches. Here’s the current text from the AIM:

ATC may clear aircraft that have filed an Advanced RNAV equipment suffix to the intermediate fix when clearing aircraft for an instrument approach procedure. ATC will take the following actions when clearing Advanced RNAV aircraft to the intermediate fix:

1. Provide radar monitoring to the intermediate fix.

2. Advise the pilot to expect clearance direct to the intermediate fix at least 5 miles from the fix.

NOTE - This is to allow the pilot to program the RNAV equipment to allow the aircraft to fly to the intermediate fix when cleared by ATC.

3. Assign an altitude to maintain until the intermediate fix.

4. Ensure the aircraft is on a course that will intercept the intermediate segment at an angle not greater than 90 degrees and is at an altitude that will permit normal descent from the intermediate fix to the final approach fix.

Here’s what it means to a typical GA pilot.

1) You need to be GPS equipped (which is the only practical way for most GA aircraft to be RNAV equipped). This let’s you find your way independently to the IF.

2) The controller might advise you that you’ll be starting the approach at the IF, but more typically, you’ll have already requested that of the controller.

3) You’ll be assigned an altitude to maintain until reaching the IF. Most likely you won’t be on a published segment of the approach until the IF, so you need to be assigned a safe altitude.

4) The controller cannot clear you directly to the IF until you’re in a position from which you can make a turn of less than 90 degrees to join the approach at the IF.

It’s the last part, making a turn of less than 90 degrees, where pilot and controller sometimes get confused. The idea is that the turn at the IF needs to be an easy one, much like turning left or right at the intersection of two streets. It can’t be a hairpin turn or resemble something like a U-Turn.

Think of it this way. If you were to draw a line on your chart at the IF that’s perpendicular to the intermediate segment, on one side of the line, the side farthest from the airport, you are allowed to fly directly to the IF, since the turn inbound is less than 90 degrees. If you’re on the other side of the line, the side closer to the airport, you can’t be cleared to the IF until after you’ve been vectored across the perpendicular line.

All of this presents some new challenges for pilots and controllers, especially if they’re unclear on the rule. We’ll talk more about those challenges….next month.

Join an Aircraft Type Club and Save Your Life

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

Type Clubs Save LivesAircraft type clubs are General Aviation’s best-kept secret weapon. While there are more than a hundred of them, they fly stealthily below the radar of most pilots, who seem to be blissfully unaware of their existence and benefits. Only a fraction of pilots belong to any of them, yet they offer the best value proposition in aviation: they’re cheap and they could save your life.

No, I’m not talking about AOPA, EAA and the other large industry associations that have hundreds of thousands of members. Type clubs are smaller, usually only a few hundred or a few thousand members, and they play a very different role. While the large organizations champion industry-wide issues, type clubs are dedicated to helping owners and renters of specific aircraft makes and models.

Most type clubs offer a newsletter or magazine and many have a web site loaded with aircraft details. But no two clubs are alike; each seems to have a slightly different emphasis. For example, the Cessna Pilots Association (CPA) is focused heavily on maintenance. Each time I had a maintenance issue with the Cessna T210 I owned ten years ago, I phoned the CPA before seeing my mechanic. Invariably, their experts were able to narrow down the issue so I could point my mechanic to the specific problem that needed fixing. That saved hours of troubleshooting and lots of money.

Some clubs, like the Cirrus Owner and Pilots Association (COPA), have a strong emphasis on pilot training and safety. In addition to a very active online forum in which training and accidents are discussed in detail, they offer training at locations around the world in their weekend Cirrus Pilot Proficiency Programs (CPPP). Half of the weekend is spent in seminars on subjects like avionics and engine operation. The other half is spent in the air with a flight instructor, often factory trained, who specializes in teaching in Cirrus SR20 and SR22 aircraft.

The payoff is that the Cirrus fatal accident rate, which was originally higher than the GA fatal accident rate, has declined steadily in recent years and is now slightly lower than the overall GA fatal accident rate. Not surprisingly, COPA members have far fewer fatal Cirrus accidents than non-COPA members.

According to Rick Beach of COPA, the type club has over 3,700 members representing 2,900 Cirrus tail numbers, which is 55% of the 5,400 aircraft that have been produced. About 3,200 of the clubs members are certificated pilots, which is 40% of the total estimated 8,000 Cirrus pilots (including owners and renters).

Beach says “In the history of the fleet, 25 COPA members were involved in the 103 fatal accidents or 24%. If Cirrus pilots were uniformly likely to be involved, then we would expect 40% to be COPA members.” Not only are COPA members about half as likely to be involved in an accident, active COPA members, those who participated in a BPPP or were active in online forums, are even less likely to have an accident. In the history of the fleet, 11 active COPA members were involved in fatal accidents or 11%, about one quarter of the accident rate for all Cirrus aircraft.

Beach continues “If we just look at the past 36 months, as fatal accident frequency dropped considerably, the results are more emphatic. Of the 36 fatal accidents in the past 36 months, 7 were COPA members (20%) and 3 were active COPA Members (8%) instead of 40%.”

On the flip side, COPA members are more likely to have pulled the Cirrus parachute handle and floated down to safety. “Over the lifetime of the fleet, there have been 38 CAPS [parachute] saves. Of those, 17 involved COPA members or 45%, slightly higher than our guesstimate of the proportion of COPA members in the Cirrus pilot community. In the past 36 months, there have been 16 CAPS saves. Of those, 6 involved COPA members or 38%, almost the same proportion of COPA members in the Cirrus pilot community, and certainly a higher percentage than in fatal accidents.”

Lest you think COPA is unique in its safety results, look at LOBO, the Lancair Owners and Builders Organization. In 2008, the worst accident year in Lancair history, seven crashes resulted in 19 fatalities. In October 2008, LOBO was formed to address the high accident rate. In 2009, there were only four accidents with 7 fatalities and by 2010 there were only two fatalities, the lowest accident rate in ten years. Per their January 2011 newsletter, “since the inception of LOBO, there has only been one serious accident involving a LOBO member.”

Give yourself an early Christmas present: Join the type club for the aircraft you fly most frequently. But don’t just write a check; become an active participant. Whether you own or rent, you’re bound to learn more about the intricacies of that aircraft model. And if your family is lucky, what you learn as a type club member may someday save your life…and possibly their lives too.

The missing link in simulation

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Several months ago I mused about the how ever-advancing computer technology has led to a marked improvement in simulators for the light GA market. After my post was published, reader Keith Smith alerted me to a corresponding service he had developed called PilotEdge. His company’s mission is to add a level of realism to the general aviation FTD that not even the multi-million dollar Level D boxes have thus far been able to offer.

I was intrigued. What could possible transform an inexpensive Flight Training Device that way? In a word: radios. As Keith said, “People use [simulators] for things they can’t easily do in the airplane because they lack real ATC and real traffic. If you had those elements, an ordinary end-to-end flight would now be beneficial in the sim, because it would more accurately model the workload associated with conducting the flight.”

That’s when it hit me: I’ve been training regularly in a full-motion Level D Gulfstream IV-SP simulator for a few years now, and despite the accuracy with which the cockpit, visuals, and motion are replicated, it’s never been exactly like flying the actual jet. I never spent much time thinking about why. Adding live air traffic control and filling the skies with actual traffic, operated by humans who spoke on the radio would completely revolutionize the experience, because for better or worse, pilots invest tremendous energy and attention on those two elements. We have to listen for our call sign, respond to queries, and interact with other people on a continual basis.

This isn’t about radio skills (although the service would definitely be useful for that purpose), it’s about workload. Keith related the story of a sim pilot who was so busy in the traffic pattern dealing with a Skyhawk ahead of him and a King Air on a three-mile straight-in for another runway that he failed to notice that he only had two green “gear down” lights.

The shower of sparks was impressive — but nothing compared to the look of horror on his face. He was sure he had confirmed the landing gear position. In fact, he heard the gear coming down and felt the vibration, but a badly timed call from the controller asking him to widen out on downwind distracted him and he never finished the checks. His radio work was perfect, but he failed to prioritize the necessary tasks. You couldn’t duplicate that without PilotEdge.

Bringing the workload closer to real world levels reveals chinks in the student’s armor; in fact, it’s exactly what instructors do with their students in real life: give them a heavy workload to see how they deal with the stress.

Imagine running an emergency in the simulator — say, an engine failure or depressurization scenario — and how much better it would be with a controller on the other end of the radio. You declare an emergency, and they start asking you about fuel remaining, souls on board, what are your intentions, do you need assistance, etc. That’s realism. It’s also a great opportunity to learn things a simulator normally never teaches you, like the fact that ignoring ATC is sometimes the best and safest option when you need to fully focus on flying the airplane. Imagine a copilot trying to read a challenge-response checklist to you in one ear while ATC is yammering away in the other.

Instructors using the PilotEdge service have a textual “back channel” to the controllers and can request scenarios like lost comm, a late go-around, poor vectoring, holds, and literally anything else a real controller would throw at you.

How It Works

The goal is 100% fidelity. ATC services are as realistic as PilotEdge can make them. They used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain SOPs for Southern California towers, approach control, and Center sectors. They also familiarize themselves with local airport customs by listening to LiveATC.net. The sim controllers are paid by PilotEdge and use the same phraseology and procedures utilized by FAA-certified ATC specialists.

But “live” ATC is not very realistic if you’re the only one in the sky. So PilotEdge uses what they call “traffic shaping”. Rather than merely hoping for traffic, they coordinate actual pilots with simulators in remote locations to be at the right place at the right time flying a specified route to create that traffic. And they’re on the frequency as well. Listening for your call sign is something you have to do as much or more in the simulator than you’d be doing in real life. You’ll wait for departure, get stepped on during transmissions, and do all the other things that would happen in a real airplane.

PilotEdge’s service area covers Southern California. Some of their traffic is live, while the rest is computer-generated. PilotEdge has 400 drones flying around the area at all times in Echo and Golf airspace, squawking 1200 and not talking to anyone. They’re programmed to fly exactly as real-world “non-participating” targets do. They’re in the VFR practice areas, the Palos Verdes aerobatic area, and so on. They have military aircraft flying at high speed on military training routes, light GA aircraft on multi-hour cross-countries, gliders (again, without a transponder) flying ridge lift off of Warner Springs and around Mojave, etc.

Here’s a three minute overview of the PilotEdge service:

The Genesis

I’d never heard of a service like PilotEdge before, but Keith said they are not the only one providing ATC services for simulators. The difference is, the “other guys” are using voice-recognition software limited to prepackaged scenarios rather than a room full of human controllers who can deal with — and dish out — anything you can dream up.

Keith Smith started with an early internet-based attempt at simulating air traffic control called VATSIM, which began by using text and later went to Voice-Over-IP.

“That’s where the idea came about; I was a controller there for seven years or so. It’s got lots of flaws for commercial use, but it was the genesis. I couldn’t convince other pilots to use VATSIM due to technical difficulty, so I built PilotEdge from the ground up, licensed the radar scope technology, and off we went.

The radio source code is fairly complicated, but beyond that the service is more evolutionary than revolutionary. Technology is not the key. The secret is our operating model: ATC services provided fifteen hours a day, no requirement for scheduling in advance, and it’s just like the real ATC system.

Also, VATSIM strictly prohibits commercial use, whereas we are built for that purpose. Once a fee is charged, a volunteer service like VATSIM gets complicated. Who gets paid and who does not?”

I asked him how the reception has been for PilotEdge. “It’s a tricky question to answer. It depends on the market. Right now we’re sitting at around 400 users and we’ve been there for 3-4 months. We bring some flight schools on, others drop out. The middle of the market has not been strong, but relationships on the upper-end have made up for it. But we’re a small company, only two years old and definitely still a start-up as far as funding goes.”

A PilotEdge air traffic controller working the "virtual" tower cab at Long Beach (LGB) Airport.

A PilotEdge air traffic controller working the “virtual” tower cab at Long Beach (LGB) Airport.

On the light GA side, PilotEdge is about building radio skills and proficiency at a low cost. With the price of flying spiraling upward at an alarming rate, it’s getting too expensive to operate a real airplane just to build mastery of radio communication.

Even so, it’s been hard for PilotEdge to get much traction with the prototypical flight school. These FBOs tend to be run by people who are overworked. Changes to their programs — especially if it’s an FAA-approved Part 141 syllabus — are difficult to make, and the main emphasis for these companies is keeping the leaseback airplanes flying. Likewise, instructors need to build time, so they want to fly, not sit in a simulator.

Keith feels he’ll be most successful with home users and corporate training centers, because all they do is simulation. The center of market is going to be soft because simulation is not as mature there (although that’s starting to change due to the Redbird Effect).

Expansion on the Horizon

Chicago Jet Group recently obtained an STC to put CPDLC (Controller-Pilot Data Link Communication — basically ATC via text) into Falcons and Gulfstreams, and they contacted PilotEdge to help provide training. VATSIM started with text-only, so it’s an easy transition. Keith said anyone who worked with VATSIM would feel right at home.

I wondered if PilotEdge would ever expand their service area beyond SoCal, and he responded by saying that airspace is airspace, but if the need arose, sure. They picked ZLA because there are simple, moderate, and highly complex areas around SoCal. Keeping the service area restricted increases density of traffic and that congestion helps training and realism. Having said that, there is a company looking to provide PilotEdge service for the New York area because they have a commercial contract to fulfill for that region.

The brass ring for a company like PilotEdge is, of course, the major training centers like Simuflite, FSI, and Simcom. Even NASA has shown an interest.

They’re already making some inroads there via a partnership with ProFlight LLC, a Part 142 training facility in Carlsbad, CA. Founder Caleb Taylor has deployed PilotEdge in their simulators and is basing their business model on that service. Their goal is not just recurrent training, but continual training where pilots can come in any time at no cost and use the device, solo. Well, if it’s used solo, there’s no instructor pretending to deliver ATC (badly, in most cases). So, enter PilotEdge.

Additionally, during ground training, where simulators are not generally used until after classroom training is complete, they want to use their $6 million sim as a training aid. Students will jump in the cockpit and practice using all the systems, including the FMS. There, too, ATC has a role. Lastly, students enter the flight training portion of the formal initial or recurrent program and log their sessions with an instructor. But they will be encouraged to follow up with a bunch of solo sessions, again, with PilotEdge.

All Roads Lead to Savannah

The PilotEdge virtual air traffic control center set up at the 2011 Airventure show in Oshkosh.

The PilotEdge virtual air traffic control center set up at the 2011 Airventure show in Oshkosh.

Keith knew that I fly Gulfstreams for a living and mentioned that they’re working with the folks in Savannah as well. Of course, that piqued my curiosity pretty quickly. He said that Gulfstream is using PilotEdge to save on certification costs related to the avionics in the G650. They’re developing the first FMS update for that airplane, and traditionally the human factors certification takes place in the actual jet. That’s expensive. Operating a G650 costs thousands of dollars per hour. PilotEdge allowed them to move that work into a simulator with full FAA blessing.

“We’re a small company nobody’s heard of, but the Gulfstream project got us in the door at FlightSafety. But even then, they were under the impression that it was voice recognition software, a synthetic product using rigid scenarios.”

It’s Not Just for Pilots

PilotEdge can work in reverse, too. Sacramento City College trains controllers before they go to Oklahoma City for formal coursework with the FAA. They setup a lab with simulators and use PilotEdge to get trainees a leg up on the intricacies of keeping a flurry of flying aluminum sequenced and separated.

Keith said they just put together a proposal for the Mexican Navy as well. Again, competitors use voice recognition software, but that technology doesn’t scale easily when the language in question is Spanish rather than English. He said PilotEdge’s pricing is also superior.

Speaking of English, no matter where you go — and I’ve been on virtually every continent — controllers and pilots are supposed to be capable of communicating in English. There’s no other way to ensure a pilot whose native language is Portuguese can talk to a controller in China who’s primary tongue is Mandarin. So a huge aspect of the international training market is dictated by the ICAO Level 6 English requirements. That regulation has teeth to it, and everyone’s struggling to get their people up to speed. Guess who can help with that?

The Bottom Line

I’m frankly a little surprised that nobody’s come up with a service like PilotEdge before Keith Smith and his team made it happen. As previously noted, the requisite technology has been with us for many years. In some ways PilotEdge is almost anachronistic. From manufacturing to fast food, industries are moving toward greater automation and a lower employee count. PilotEdge is doing the exact opposite, supplanting automated ATC simulation with live humans. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I’ve had the misfortune to interact with a couple of these computerized programs in the past and always come away wishing I could get the last two hours of my life back.

The combination of a new generation of simulators and PilotEdge’s addition of air traffic and ATC has the potential to vastly improve the way pilots train while simultaneously reducing the cost of obtaining everything from a sport pilot certificate to a turbojet type rating. I can see this powerful duo creating an aviation equivalent of the smartphone explosion and helping turn the tide toward a more prosperous future.

Perhaps evolutionary is revolutionary after all.

News Flash: Stick & Rudder Skills Are Important

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

AVweb’s Glenn Pew interviewed Embry-Riddle professor and former Northwest captain Jack Panosian in a podcast entitled “Avionics — Good Pilots Not Required?”.  It’s an inflammatory title, no doubt to encourage people to dive for that “play” button.  Obviously it worked, because I listened to the whole thing.

Panosian has an impressive resume:  20 years at Northwest, 5 years at ERAU, and he’s got a Juris Doctorate as well.  Nevertheless, while I agreed with some of what he said, certain portions of his thesis seem way off base.

I’ll summarize his points:

    • automation used to monitor human pilots, but today it’s the other way around: we are monitoring the computers these days, and we’re not very good at it
    • computers are good monitors, they do it the same way every time, with the same level of diligence
    • stick & rudder skills are less important than avionics management skill and we need to teach with that in mind

The first two points may be correct (I’ll get to the third one later), but computers don’t “monitor”, they simply execute programming.  There’s a big difference there. It’s true that when people monitor the same thing over and over again, we cannot maintain the same vigilance ad nauseum. But when humans monitor something, they’re capable of doing so with thoughtful and reasoned analysis.  Humans can think outside the box.  They can adapt and prioritize based on what’s actually happening rather than being limited by their programming.

Computers are not capable of that. Remember, system failures are not always covered by the aircraft operating procedures or training, and that’s why safe flight still requires human input and oversight. We are also capable of putting more focus on our monitoring during critical phases of flight. For example, I watch airspeed and flight path with much greater attention during approach than I typically will during cruise.

It’s also worth considering that, despite all the automation, humans still manually perform the takeoff, landing, taxi phases, as well as fly the airplane when the computers get confused or take the day off.   These are the areas where most accidents happen.  Air France 447 stalled up in the flight levels and remained in that state until reaching the ocean.  Colgan 3407 was another stall accident.  Asiana 214 was a visual approach gone wrong. Better manual flying skill might very well have made the difference in at least some of these accidents.

Glenn Pew asked, “How much of flying the airplane is flying the avionics?”, and Panosian replied that “the greatest innovation was the moving map”, giving an example of synthetic vision showing terrain at night.  In my experience, a moving map is no guarantee of situational awareness.  I’ve trained many pilots to fly VFR and IFR in glass panel Cirruses, DiamondStars, experimentals, and so on.  I can’t tell you how many of them had no idea where they were, even with a 10″ full color moving map directly in front of them. When asked the simple question, “Where are we right now?”, you’d be surprised how many have a tough time coming up with an answer.

Does that seem odd to you? It shouldn’t. Situational awareness is not about the map in front of your eyes, it’s about the moving map inside your head.  If you want evidence of that, look at the 2007 CFIT crash of a CAP Flight 2793, a C-182T Skylane which ran into high terrain near Las Vegas.  That flight was piloted by two highly experienced pilots who were familiar with the area, had a G1000 panel in front of them, and still managed to fly into Mt. Potosi.

Panosian made the point that the Airbus was designed to be flown on autopilot “all the time — it was not designed to be flown by hand.  It was designed so that it’s a hassle to be flown by hand”.  Some business jets have similar characteristics. Who would want to hand fly the airplane straight and level for hours on end anyway? The light GA arena has an equivalent as well, the Cirrus SR20 and SR22. I enjoy hand flying them, actually, but the airplane has a somewhat artificial feel due to the springs in the flight control system. It was purposefully designed to fly long distances on autopilot. It’s very good at that mission. It’s well equipped, and has plenty of safety equipment aboard. TAWS, traffic, CAPS, a solid autopilot, good avionics… and yet the Cirrus’s accident rate is not better than average.

I don’t believe the answer is to make the pilot a better manager of automation. This will not stop CFIT, stall/spin, weather, and takeoff or landing accidents.

“The Good news is that we have a generation of pilots that have grown up with this technology, these tablets, etc. and they grab hold of these things better than the older pilot who was trained on the round dials.  That’s a good thing because now you’re just molding them into the aviation world and this is how you’ll operate the aircraft.”

I’m a big proponent of glass panels, tablets, and technology. They’re great. But they do not make one a good pilot. If you want a better pilot, start primary students off in a tailwheel airplane and ensure they know how to fly before doing anything else. Everything should flow out of that. I wouldn’t expect this to be a revolutionary idea, but perhaps it is.

“You are not going to be hired because of your stick and rudder skills.  You will be hired because of your management skills.”

A good aviator needs both sets of skills.  Management ability is important, but no more so than stick-and-rudder capability.  If you can’t physically fly the airplane during any or all phases of flight, you don’t belong in the cockpit because any equipment issues during those phases can leave the aircraft without someone capable of safely operating it.  Pilots who can’t proficiently hand-fly are passengers.  Console operators.  Button pushers.  System monitors (dog not included). But they’re not pilots.

“In other words, can you manage all these systems, can you manages the information you’re getting and make sure that the airplane is doing what it’s supposed to do?  The fact of the matter is that we’ve see this in other industries.  It’s hardly unique to the airline industry.  A robot can do a better job of welding than a human.  An autopilot has many more sensors than a human hand does.  They can be done better and safer than a human being, but they must be monitored properly. That’s where the training comes in.  We have to change from the stick & rudder skills to the manager skills.  That’s what we’re trying to do.”

The problem with his comparison is that flying an airplane is not like welding.  Welding does not require you to manage the energy state of a large chunk of metal hurling through the air while maintaining situational awareness, staying ahead of the aircraft mentally, and adjusting for countless variables ranging from weather to traffic to equipment failures to controllers, often all at the same time and at the end of a long work day. Doing all those things does constitute “management”, but I don’t think it’s the kind Mr. Panosian is referring to.

And as far as the autopilot is concerned, it’s extraordinarily simplistic to compare a full autopilot system to a single human hand.  What about the rest of the body? What about the vestibular labyrinthine system and resultant equilibrioception?  There’s proprioception, thermoception, etc. (Look ‘em up — I had to!). And that’s to say nothing of our sense of sight, hearing, touch, and smell.  We use those when we fly, even without direct knowledge of what our body is doing.  How many times have you noticed a subtle vibration from a prop or engine, the sound of a leaking seal around a door, the sense of something just not being quite right?

Autopilots do some things better than a human. Automation is helpful and absolutely has it’s place. But it is no substitute for a flesh-and-blood pilot who knows how to fly the machine.

What say you, readers?

The automation challenge: A young person’s problem?

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013
Otto Pilot

Image Credit: Screenshot from Airplane!

In the aftermath of Asiana 214 in San Francisco and UPS 1354 in Birmingham (even reaching back to Air France 447 and Colgan 3407), much of the collective conversation, soul searching, and heated argument has revolved around the issue of cockpit automation and pilot interaction with onboard technology. There has been a collective cry from much of the “old guard” in the aviation field saying that these accidents prove that the modern pilot spends too much time monitoring systems and not enough time honing their old-fashioned “stick-and-rudder” skills. A recent blog post from the Economist even went so far as to say:

“Many of today’s younger pilots (especially in the rapidly expanding markets of Asia and the Middle East) have had little opportunity to hone their airmanship in air forces, general aviation or local flying clubs, allowing them to amass long hours of hand-flying various aircraft in all sorts of weather conditions and emergencies.”

Are the recent airline accidents a direct result of a lack of stick-and-rudder skills amongst younger pilots? A look at the demographics of the flight crews tells a different story. The two captains in the left and right seat onboard Asiana 214 were 48 and 45 years old, respectively, and the relief crew was 41 and 52 years old. The captain of the UPS aircraft that went down in Birmingham was 58; the first officer was 37. Air France 447’s crew had the youngest first officer (32 years old) amongst these major “automation interaction” accidents; the captain was 58 and the relief first officer onboard the ill-fated flight was 37. Without getting into the training priorities of each airline and nitty-gritty of procedures relating to hand-flying, it would seem that more of our accident-prone problems today stem not from a lack of stick-and-rudder skills of the millennial first officer, but (to borrow a colloquialism) teaching our old dogs new tricks and displays in the cockpit.

In general aviation, we see this new challenge with the implementation and increased use of technologically advanced aircraft (TAAs) by our pilots. The standard story goes something like this: VFR-rated pilot gets in TAA, encounters marginal weather, potentially thinking he’s safer behind a glass cockpit, becomes disoriented, and crashes. Is this a stick-and-rudder skill problem, or is it indicative of a broader problem that we still have failures in how we train our pilots to make good decisions?

If you want to buy a new airplane today, be it a 172 or SR22, it will be equipped with glass cockpit technology and the automation that comes with it as standard. Our training and testing methodologies have not adapted to meet these new, fantastic technologies, giving pilots the opportunity to learn both stick-and-rudder skills and the systems management/awareness skills to use the automation to its best and safest abilities. It’s been far too long since the FAA in consultation with the industry has taken a look at its requirements and testing methodologies for pilot certificates in this country. The new ATP certification process presents some revamping of testing and subject areas, but we still fail to begin our training by reinforcing both stick-and-rudder and technical skills.

My fellow “younger” pilots (those lacking in stick-and-rudder skills as the Economist blog post suggests) are incredibly comfortable with technology. For many fellow graduates from large universities, we have extensive experience training and learning in TAA. Where do the airlines see challenges in their training of new hire pilots from these big schools? Not in systems management or basic stick-and-rudder skills. The biggest issue with near consistency across airlines whose new hires trained in all-glass fleets is basic instrument competency. Small things like holding, VOR tracking, and setting fixes in the “old-fashioned way” with two VORs make up a large portion of the feedback universities receive.

In the United States, GA will continue to serve as the primary pipeline for tomorrow’s professional pilots. It behooves us all as GA pilots and instructors to emphasize both of these elements in our training and day-to-day flying. We need to continue to explore better methods of training, especially for the “new dogs” that are already used to GPS on their phones and in their cars and those “old dogs” who grew up in a time when LORAN was a common tool for navigating.